Evviva Weintraub Lajoie, Vice Provost for University Libraries hosts our virtual book club exclusively for Loyal Blues.
You’ll have the opportunity to connect with alumni and friends from around the country, all while having an expert educator guide you through several books annually.
I am delighted to go on this literary journey with you. City of Light is a remarkable blend of murder mystery, love story, and history text. I am fascinated by the Gilded Age in the US, and there is no better place to experience life in this time than Buffalo. The City of Buffalo was at the forefront of innovation and progress – from the development of electricity, to stunning architecture and the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. Belfer could not have set a better backdrop for her story. And we experience it all in these pages.
There is no cost to participate. Simply purchase a copy of the book and sign up below to receive emails. This title is available as an audiobook, though a variety of vendors as an eBook, and also through the Public Library through Overdrive. If you have trouble finding a copy, just let us know.
Once you've signed up, you will receive periodic emails to guide you through the reading period, which will run from July 14 until August 18. You can also join our Facebook Forum to discuss the book and post questions. We'll conclude with an interactive online discussion with Evviva.
- In City of Light, the upper echelons of Buffalo society all get what they want by cultivating an "acceptable" image under which they can do what they want, regardless of its moral implications. How does this rationalize their behavior, as well as hide it?
- Are there any main characters in this story who don't follow society's code? Who and why?
- Why do none of the members of Buffalo society become involved with the faction that is worried about the effects of the power plant on the environment?
- What are your impressions of Tom Sinclair? What do you think motivates his dreams of electrical power? Is it the vision of industrial progress, the hope of personal fame and wealth or something else?
- Why was Francesca Coatsworth able to maintain relative freedom and her identity, so unusual for her time, and be such an influential member of society?
- Belfer often takes creative license with the real people in this novel. This was particularly controversial with President Grover Cleveland. Although rooted in historical fact, what you think of the treatment of Cleveland in this book? What do you think Belfer was trying to say by casting him this way?
- In 1901, Buffalo is one of the richest, most sophisticated cities in the nation. How does this influence Louisa's life, and the lives of the wealthy citizens of the city? What do you think they hope to achieve on the brink of a new century?
- What do you make of Louisa and how she handled the request of Mary Talbert? Do you think she could have done more, or was she accurate in defining her limitations?
- I’d like you to think about the immigrants that are depicted in the novel. Consider the communities that work at the factories, and figures such as Tom Sinclair and Abigail’s grandmother. Is anything surprising to you? Can you draw comparisons to how we treat newcomers to America today, and ideas about assimilation?
- If Abigail's mother wanted to keep her daughter's child far away from Abigail and from scandal, why didn't she have him adopted in a family far away, instead of sending it to the asylum?
Part 5 Questions Coming Soon!
An Essay by Dr. Cari Casteel
Life in the Gilded Age: Progress and Poverty
I usually begin my lectures on the Gilded Age by playing Bruce Springsteen’s version of John Henry, the tale of manpower vs machine power. In this case, manpower “wins” at the cost of John Henry’s life. In the late 19th century United States, machine power reigns supreme, but still at the cost of many lives. (For more on John Henry: the real person)
The era we now refer to as the Gilded Age (1870s-1900s) was –as we see in the opening chapters of City of Light—an age hallmarked by technological advances. It was also, however, an era of incredible inequality. The gap between the wealthiest and everyone else was wider than ever before. Those with extraordinary wealth worked to flaunt it every chance they got. This inequality is where we get the era's name; "gilded age."
In 1873 Mark Twain and Charles Warner collaborated on a fictionalized (satirized) story of the present. The book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today described the duality of the current age. Imagine gilding an apple in gold. It would look beautiful, but after time the inside would rot. This is the Gilded Age. From afar, the United States was modernizing, advancing, #winning –if you will. On further and closer inspection, though, this was just a façade. Most Americans teetered on the edge of poverty.
Transportation technologies, especially, were at the center of both the prosperous and the rotten parts of the Gilded Age. Railroads and canals revolutionized travel and commerce. They also increased the demand for goods. New factories existed to supply steel and oil needed for railroads and lights respectively (not quite to electricity yet...). While the wages were not terrible (at first), they were not adequate either. Factory jobs were enticing to workers who were tired of the uncertainty of farming. Wage work was reliable--if you could find it.
The United States invested heavily in the construction of railroads leaving little liquid capital for a rainy day. This meant that the late 19th century was a time of economic turmoil and recessions. These were felt the most severely by the workers themselves. Without labor safety nets, employers could lower wages as much as they wanted to keep their businesses operating at a profit at the expense of their workers. Business owners knew they could find workers with unemployment rather high.
Lower wages meant more families found themselves mired in poverty. One solution was to have as many family members working as possible—including children. In Buffalo, it was not uncommon for children as young as 6 or 7 to spend summers working in local canning factories. When in school and not working, businesses such as the Fitch Creche—a kindergarten/daycare—helped Buffalonians by making it “easier” for more family members to work longer hours to make up for the wage cuts.
In the book's opening chapters, characters mention strikes, scabs, and violence. Strikes were commonplace across the country as workers pushed for better pay and safer conditions. The strikes, however, were not often successful. Companies often hired security firms—really spies—such as the Pinkertons bullied workers and threatened their families to prevent and end striking.
In other cases, companies brought in outside workers—scabs—to keep the factory working. The book describes most of the scabs as being African American. This is not something that was always –or even often—the case. Rather, strikebreakers were newly arrived immigrants who were not told they were breaking a strike, convict laborers who had no say in the matter, or just workers who had been unemployed for long enough that they could not afford not to take the "opportunity.” Striking workers and strikebreakers did often come to blows. Both sides were trying to eke out a living for themselves and their loved ones. It was an understandably frustrating time to be a wage worker.
While all of this was bubbling under the surface, Buffalo and many American cities were thriving. The United States was rapidly becoming a world power thanks largely to the transportation revolution that will incite a larger technological boom—to include electricity.
This is where we are at the end of the Gilded Age and the dawn of a new century; a time of both prosperity and poverty.
An Essay by Dr. Cari Casteel
Creating the “New Woman” at the Turn of the Century
In October 1904, Jenny Lasher of Binghamton, NY was sentenced to a month in jail for smoking in the presence of her children. Her husband filed the complaint against her. It was not the dangerous nature of the smoke, but the fact that Jenny was behaving unwomanly. Her husband could smoke in front of the family, but Jenny—as the mother—was supposed to set an example and to stay within the boundaries of acceptable womanhood. Smoking was not within those boundaries.
Louisa Barrett contemplates in an internal monologue about smoking while at the Twentieth Century Club but acquiesces that doing so would overstep her position (p.63). Women in the Gilded Age—especially those of Louisa’s social status—walked a fine line between modernity and tradition.
Sandwiched between Seneca Falls and the 19th Amendment, we often think about the late 19th and early 20th century as a time of great change for women. It was the era of the “New Woman,” but while women experienced (fought for and won) many new freedoms in the early 20th century, they still faced enormous hurdles on their quest for equality.
Magazines, newspapers, and books of the time created idealized and acceptable femininities, but it was the illustrative creation of Charles Dana Gibson that came to visually embody the Gilded Age woman. The “Gibson Girl” became the literary trope and visual icon for women of the time. Every major publication featured some iteration of the Gibson Girl. She—like Louisa Barrett—was well-educated and independent, but at the same time, she dressed immaculately and maintained her visual femininity. The Gibson Girl pushed boundaries but did not overstep them.
The opening pages of City of Light describe Louisa’s salon gatherings. Salons had been popular places to discuss books, science, current events since the late 18th century. During the lead up to the American Revolution salons were safe places (away from the public eye) to speak out against King George. Because salons were often in homes, the gatherings were more diverse than they would have been in a public space.
By the late 19th century, more women were pursuing higher education, living on their own or with other single women, and holding jobs (by this is specifically mean women working for spending money, not out of economic necessity—more on that below). These privileges, however, were only options until marriage. After marriage, women were expected to be housewives and mothers.
All of this only applied to women like Louisa. While upper- and middle-class women relished in the freedom to hold a job or go to a salon, women without economic means experienced the era differently. Working-class women made less money in every occupation. Employers justified paying women lower wages by claiming that women were not the primary breadwinner and were probably just working for spending money. In almost every wage industry, however, women who worked did so to support their families. As I mentioned last time, wages were low and the only way for most Americans to feed themselves and their families was to have everyone in the family pitching in.
The "gilded" part of the Gilded Age is particularly visible when looking at the roles of women. For most women in the United States, the Gibson Girl ideal was something they might not be able to achieve economically, but they could at least try to look the part. Women of all classes and races still consumed the cultural ideal. They styled their hair in the same ways as the Gibson ideal. Their dresses might have been homemade with pieced together fabric, but their design matched the ones appearing Life and Godey’s Lady’s Book.
What was so important about this fictionalized ideal of femininity—especially one created by a man? Why did it connect with women across classes? Because the Gibson Girl depicted women doing things that were previously outside the realm of womanhood. For example, Gibson often drew women playing sports, riding horses, and (gasp) alone in public places. All of these illustrations worked to normalize these behaviors as feminine and make the boundaries of publicly acceptable womanhood more malleable.
Charles Gibson is not responsible for women gaining new freedoms. Instead, the way that women consumed Gibson's ideal and made it their own allowed them more leverage as they pushed for more rights. Women weaponized idealized femininity and stretched its boundaries. While women’s individual experiences varied greatly during this time, they all played a role in expanding the definition of what it meant to be a woman.
An Essay by Nathan Attard, a 2016 graduate of the Master of Urban Planning program in the UB School of Architecture and Planning
Olmsted, Vaux, and City of Light
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, in the context of the book City of Light, were gentlemen of a different era. Where many of the historical characters mentioned in City of Light were at the prime of their career, both Olmsted and Vaux were of the generation prior. Their influence on the design profession in the turn-of-the-century United States, however, was so important that the book can read like they were there. And as Olmsted and Vaux said in several different ways in their writings, the work they were doing was not for their day, but for the generations to come. We can imagine Louisa Barrett and Franklin Fiske as among the people Olmsted and Vaux were envisioning to benefit from their work, on their turn from Delaware Avenue to Chapin Parkway, as they felt like they were entering a park, nearly a mile from Delaware Park itself. Designed almost 40 years prior, by the time they took this fictional turn, this parkway can be imagined as having the shaded effect so many of us recognize today.
Olmsted and Vaux
Named the superintendent of Central Park in New York in 1857, a role more responsible for park maintenance, construction, and management, Frederick Law Olmsted’s first true venture in landscape architecture (beyond work he had done on his own scientific farm in Staten Island) was his entry into the design competition for Central Park that same year.
Initially hesitant to enter the competition, with Calvert Vaux as his co-equal partner (a British-born architect who moved to the US to work with 19th-century tastemaker Andrew Jackson Downing), their Greensward Plan was selected as the design for Central Park. Olmsted and Vaux worked together toward implementation of the park plan through 1861. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Olmsted took a position with the US Sanitary Commission, the predecessor of the American Red Cross, and later worked as the superintendent of the Mariposa Mining Estate in California, while Vaux remained in New York to continue the work they had started.
After the war’s conclusion, the then-independent City of Brooklyn also engaged in a design competition for its city park, Prospect Park, and Vaux succeeded in encouraging Olmsted’s return to New York to create another co-equal entry, for which they were also successful in winning.
A Park System for Buffalo
Though Buffalo had many smaller parks, many of which continue to exist today, a campaign for a more significant park in Buffalo had been a point of midcentury discussion but fell by the wayside due to political disagreements, economic circumstances, and the war. By 1868, political forces were aligned that allowed for the proposal of a significant new park in Buffalo, and notable Buffalonians paid for Frederick Law Olmsted to come to Buffalo in August 1868.
William Dorsheimer led Olmsted around the City, which resulted in a proposal for the creation of a park on city-owned land near Fort Porter with a vista of the Niagara River and Lake Erie (present day Front Park), a park on the East Side with a vista of the city (present day Martin Luther King Park) and a park north of Forest Lawn Cemetery (present day Delaware Park). The initial site identification took place during a larger trip to Chicago, where Olmsted and Vaux were working on the plan for Riverside, IL.
Olmsted proposed these three park sites be linked by a series of parkways to create a park system. This proposal over time would allow for many advantages: it allowed Olmsted and Vaux to embrace lake and city views; it allowed for public investment in different parts of the City (important for managing different political constituencies); it allowed utilization of existing scenic terrain (as Superintendent of Central Park, Olmsted was well aware of the effort it took to shape the earth); and it allowed for an expansion of the park system (as the Olmsted firm did with the creation of the South Park system, including South and Cazenovia Parks, as well as Riverside Park).
First Official Visit to Niagara Falls
In a subsequent visit to Buffalo in 1869, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux visited Niagara Falls. Having seen Niagara Falls as a child, Olmsted found that everything that constitutes the present-day Niagara Falls State Park either was made commercial for the purpose of charging tourists for views of the falls, or had been built upon for industrial purposes, with the exception of Goat Island. Olmsted and Vaux were among a who’s who of notable people in the US, Canada, and internationally calling for protection of the land around the falls during this time period.
End of Olmsted and Vaux Partnership
As I walk through Buffalo’s parks, and think about how Lauren Belfer writes about the Buffalo Park System, I am reminded about how important Buffalo’s parks are in the history of the development of landscape architecture in the United States. These are truly exceptional places, and more so because they were created at the height of Olmsted and Vaux’s success, a decade after work started on Central Park (their most famous park), while they were working on Prospect Park, (which they viewed as Central Park Version 2, new and improved) and which began with a stop on Olmsted’s way to Riverside, the proto-suburb which would have enormous influence on the design of suburban communities in the United States. In 1872, Olmsted and Vaux would end their partnership, with Olmsted moving to Brookline, MA, over time partnering with his son, stepson, and others to create a design firm which would last until 1979. The parting of ways between Olmsted and Vaux, however, was not the end of their story.
The Niagara Reservation
Olmsted and Vaux’s influence with the New York political establishment, after years of debate, would be important in finally securing the lands around Niagara Falls for public use. After years of campaigning, in 1883, Grover Cleveland signed the act of the legislature which created the Niagara Reservation (Niagara Falls State Park). Funds for purchase of the lands of the Reservation were made available by the Legislature in 1885, and the park opened to the public in the spring of 1886. When debate took place as to who should design the new park, especially important in rebuilding the formerly industrialized shoreline and handling the volume of visitors it was already receiving, it was Olmsted, as a co-equal partner with Vaux, who were awarded the commission for the general plan.
The challenge of writing about landscape architecture is conveying the fact that, unlike a building, the works are hard to date as to when they are completed. The parks we have in Buffalo and Niagara Falls exist as they do because of the people on the ground who implemented the designs of Olmsted and Vaux, as elements of their plans was being built long after they departed the region. Though much was lost in our parks and parkways in the 20th Century, much was also retained, and is being built upon. Exciting initiatives like the creation of the Niagara Gorge State Park, the Niagara River Greenway Commission, and the implementation of the Olmsted City plan by the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy show that this process of building on Olmsted and Vaux’s vision continues.
Acknowledgements and Book Recommendations:
Credit for the content of this essay goes to the great books written about Olmsted, Vaux, and a growing literature of work on Olmsted and Vaux in Buffalo. The dialogue on Olmsted and Vaux in Buffalo reemerged in print in 1981 with the publication of Buffalo Architecture: A Guide, with notable contributions by many UB-affiliated people and with an essay on Olmsted in Buffalo by noted Olmsted scholar Charles Beveridge. This literature has most recently been added to by (SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts at Buffalo State) Francis Kowsky’s wonderfully researched book The Best Planned City in the World, Olmsted, Vaux, and the Buffalo Park System.
Other book recommendations:
For a popular nonfiction book on Olmsted:
For a popular nonfiction book on the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago that talks about Olmsted’s role in designing the Fair (and very separately, the story of a serial killer who was also there):
So that you always acknowledge Calvert Vaux when discussing Olmsted
A primer in landscape design history:
A useful tool for identification of every landscape ever designed by Olmsted and his successors:
Have a book that you think might be interesting for the book club to read? Drop us a note and we'll add it to our list of recommendations.